The rejuvenated Chiefs take aim at a fifth consecutive win when the AFC West co-leaders attempt to defend their turf at Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday against a staggering Dolphins squad mired in a painfully-long losing skid that's now reached double digits.
Kansas City enters this Week 9 tilt locked in a three-way tie with San Diego and Oakland for first place in a crowded AFC West lot, a position that would have been quite hard to envision a little over a month ago. The defending division champions opened defense of their crown with brutally-lopsided losses to Buffalo and Detroit, then dropped to 0-3 after falling to the Chargers the following Sunday.
The Chiefs also were forced to endure seemingly-crippling season-ending knee injuries to two key players, running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry, during that slide, but certainly haven't hung their heads over their plight. Kansas City has responded to win its last four contests, becoming only the fifth team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to do so after starting out 0-3.
"They've become a team, and you can see it in more ways than just on the field," head coach Todd Haley said after Monday's 23-20 overtime decision over San Diego. "I really believe that in this league, the best team generally wins, and right now we're a good team together."
That resilience was reflected in the Chiefs' latest effort, with the club finally getting a measure of good fortune to come its way as well. Kansas City appeared on the verge of defeat in its pivotal battle with the Chargers, with its rival having marched within range of an easy go-ahead field goal inside the final minute of regulation. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers would mishandle the exchange from center, however, and the Chiefs recovered to eventually force overtime.
After stopping the Chargers on the initial possession of the extra period, quarterback Matt Cassel engineered a 14-play, 69-yard drive capped by Ryan Succop's 30-yard field that gave Kansas City a hard-earned win and a share of the division lead.
The Dolphins haven't had any joyous moments during a dismal first half that's been filled with misfortune and heartache. Miami dropped to 0-7 on the campaign with last Sunday's 20-17 ousting by the New York Giants, the turmoil-laden franchise's 10th straight negative result dating back to last season.
Miami has had its opportunities to end its drought, with three of this year's losses having been by three or less points. The Dolphins wasted a 15-point lead with under three minutes to go in a startling 18-15 overtime setback to the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos in Week 7, and held a 14-3 advantage over the Giants late into the first half before eventually faltering.
"We need to close," said Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore after this past Sunday's game. "I don't have any answers or an explanation for [it]. But we definitely need to figure it out, whatever it is, and move forward that way. I think the guys had the right attitude the whole time, and didn't let up. [But] When you're playing a good team, you've got to keep it full throttle and you really can't let up at all."
Moore will make his fourth consecutive start in place of Chad Henne, who suffered a year-ending shoulder injury in early October, as Miami tries for its first victory since a 10-6 road verdict over the New York Jets on Dec. 12, 2010. The Dolphins figure to face another challenge, as the Chiefs have gone 9-2 at Arrowhead Stadium during the regular season since the start of 2010.
Miami has won two straight and six of its last eight regular-season meetings with Kansas City to knot the all-time series at 12-12, and bested the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium by a 38-31 count in the most recent matchup, which took place in 2008. The Dolphins also posted a 13-10 home decision over Kansas City in 2006, with the Chiefs last topping the Dolphins via a 30-20 win in Miami the previous year. The Dolphins have come out on top just once in their last four stops at Arrowhead.
These teams have also faced off three times in postseason play, with Miami prevailing on each occasion. The Dolphins claimed home wins over the Chiefs in AFC First-Round Playoff bouts in both 1990 (17-16) and 1994 (27-17), as well as a 27-24 overtime decision on the road in the 1971 Divisional Round.
Miami head coach Tony Sparano won his only previous encounter with the Chiefs as a man in charge with that 2008 result, while Haley will be opposing both the Dolphins and Sparano for the first time in his present position. The two sideline bosses were both members of Bill Parcells' staff with the Dallas Cowboys from 2004-06, with Sparano the offensive line coach and Haley directing the wide receivers.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Poor execution on offense has been one of the many problems plaguing the Dolphins throughout this dreadful season, with the team having converted a league-low 25.8 percent of third-down chances and ranking near the bottom of the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage (39.1) as well. Miami does have a decent running game it can hang its hat on, however, with rookie Daniel Thomas (302 rushing yards, 7 receptions, 1 TD) emerging as an effective between-the- tackles option when healthy and veteran backfield mate Reggie Bush (335 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 1 TD) amassing 103 yards on only 15 carries as the featured performer against the Giants last week. Thomas sat out that contest with an injured hamstring but is tentatively expected to be available on Sunday, and the Dolphins will likely lean on both him and Bush in an effort to ease the burden on Moore (706 passing yards, 1 TD, 4 INT). Miami has averaged less than 155 net passing yards in the ex-Carolina Panthers washout's three starts, and he's been sacked a troubling 13 times over that span. When Moore does drop back to pass, he'll be looking primarily in the direction of big- bodied wide receiver Brandon Marshall (38 receptions, 538 yards, 1 TD), who's been a nemesis of the Chiefs in the past during his days in Denver, with the versatile Bush and slot specialist Davone Bess (27 receptions) serving as secondary targets.
Miami may need to have its ground attack operating at maximum efficiency on Sunday, as a Kansas City defense that's bagged eight interceptions over the past two weeks could prove to be difficult to navigate. Cornerback Brandon Flowers (31 tackles, 4 INT) leads the league with 19 passes defensed and was credited with four in Monday's win over the Chargers, while inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (57 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after compiling 10 tackles, a sack and an interception of Rivers in the game. The Chiefs do have a NFL-worst nine sacks on the season, but six of them have been produced by standout outside linebacker Tamba Hali (33 tackles), one of the game's premier pass rushers and a Pro Bowl selection a year ago. The run defense has been merely average, with coordinator Romeo Crennel's crew ranked just 22nd in that aspect (123.4 ypg), but Johnson is a more-than- adequate stopper and third-year end Tyson Jackson (19 tackles) has shown signs of living up to his potential after being taken with the third overall pick of the 2009 draft.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Though Kansas City has been hardly prolific in the passing department this year, the offense has managed to hit on more big plays through the air over the course of the team's winning run. Cassel (1367 passing yards, 9 TD, 9 INT) put up a season-best 261 yards on the Chargers, though he was intercepted twice for the second straight week, and gifted rookie receiver Jonathan Baldwin (6 receptions, 1 TD) broke out with a five-catch, 82-yard effort that included a 39-yard touchdown grab in the victory. The 2011 first-round choice's emergence has given the Chiefs a very respectable corps of wideouts and helped prevent opponents from rolling coverage to top weapon Dwayne Bowe (33 receptions, 558 yards, 4 TD), with veteran offseason pickup Steve Breaston (22 receptions, 2 TD) also starting to come on of late after a slow start. The Chiefs are still a run-oriented group under Haley, however, and have been able to withstand the potentially-devastating loss of Charles by organizing a diverse committee of backs that's now headlined by Jackie Battle (302 rushing yards, 1 TD), a previously seldom-used special-teamer who's brought a physical presence to the equation. Kansas City has averaged better than 140 rushing yards per outing in the three games he's been the lead back, with the diminutive Dexter McCluster (210 rushing yards, 22 receptions) also making a contribution in a change-of- pace and third-down role.
No unit on the Miami roster has been more disappointing than a defense that ranks 23rd in the NFL in yards allowed (380.6 ypg) in 2011 and finishing sixth in that category this year. The Dolphins have been especially porous against the pass, yielding an average of 270.7 yards per game through the air (27th overall) and recording a mere two interceptions, not one of which has come in the last four games. The team also has forced a paltry four turnovers on the season, the second-fewest in the league, and encountered trouble in pressuring the quarterback as well, with outside linebacker Cameron Wake (17 tackles, 5 sacks) the group's lone pass-rushing threat. Miami was able to stifle the Giants' running backs last week, with beefy nose tackle Paul Soliai (14 tackles) and inside linebacker Kevin Burnett (33 tackles) leading a charge that limited New York to 58 rushing yards on 23 attempts, but permitted 349 passing yards and two touchdowns to Eli Manning in the loss. The underachieving secondary has been further weakened by the absence of starting cornerback Vontae Davis (16 tackles), who's set to miss a third straight game with a hamstring injury.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Make them throw it. Both of these teams want to establish the run, and doing so makes each of these offenses operate far more efficiently. It's especially important for the Dolphins to get productive days out of Bush and Thomas, because Moore isn't a tremendous talent with the skill to beat defenses by himself. Cassel is more the caretaker type as well, and although he's been better of late, the Chiefs are at their toughest when their on-field leader doesn't have to sling it around 35-40 times.
Defensive big plays. The Chiefs have been incredibly opportunistic in their last two wins, having induced 10 turnovers over that successful stretch, and would surely notch another victory this week if the defense continues to come up with takeaways. Conversely, a big factor in Miami's struggles has been its inability to cause mistakes out of the opposition, and improvement in that area would certainly help its chances of ending its long losing streak.
Finishing. The Dolphins could have entered this clash on a two-game winning streak and temporarily quieted the non-stop discussion about Sparano's job security had they been able to hold onto leads against the Broncos and Giants. Instead, Miami gave up 25 points in the fourth quarter of those two games and lost both. The Chiefs have displayed a knack for fighting to the end, so the Dolphins need to match their foe's intensity and drive for a full 60 minutes.
Though their overall records may indicate otherwise, these teams aren't that far apart in terms of overall talent. The difference is the Chiefs have continually found ways to win during their resurgence, while the Dolphins come up with new and inventive ways to lose week in and week out. Turnovers and missed opportunities have crippled Miami all throughout this season, and that could be the case once again in a matchup with a Kansas City outfit that's been fundamentally sound lately and almost always plays well at home. As long as the Chiefs remain focused and stick to the task at hand, their outstanding run should continue.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 23, Dolphins 13